Book Review: The Power of Noticing


Today’s book review is The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, by Max H Bazerman, Harvard Business School Professor.

Bazerman is a scholar of decision making, and is Co-Director of the Harvard Kennedy’s School Centre for Public leadership.

His thesis is that fundamentally that if you become better at noticing the unexpected, the surprising, the path not travelled, that you will become a better leader.

He uses a series of anecdotes to help you understand ways in which you could think more widely before making decisions; to notice more that might be relevant.

Ask for the right information

The most insightful part for me, was at the very beginning. Bazerman tells the (disguised) story of the Challenger space shuttle failure, with the broadly the same information about the likelihood of failure that was given to the Challenger team – namely that seven out of the 24 last launches had an O-ring failure, and the temperature during the failures were (Fahrenheit) 53, 56, 58, 64, 70, 70 and 75. But the chief engineer thinks that the failures were unrelated to temperature. The temperature last night was in the 40s.

Most people, when presented with the same information, and told that they can ask for more information if they want to, will try to work with what they have. But if they ask for the temperature in the launches where there was no failure, they discover an extremely high correlation between temperature and O-ring failures, so the previous night’s temperature suggests that the launch should NOT go ahead.

The lesson from this problem is that we need to ask ourselves, often, what information we could have that would help us understand what was happening.  The other lesson here, is a bit more general – try avoid intuition and instead invoke System 2 thinking (as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) when making important decisions. That will help you think carefully about what information might be necessary

Motivated blindness

The other part of the book that I found fascinating was the section on motivated blindness – the systematic failure to think in ways that are not in our best interests. There are several studies showing the power of self-serving biases. What they all show is that participants in studies who are given incentives to think in a particular way, or are told they have a particular role to play, will tend bias their answer in ways that favour their role.

For example, participants in a study asked to value a fictional company would come up with different values, on average, depending on whether they were assigned the roles of buyer, seller, buyer’s auditor or seller’s auditor. Even being given a reward for accuracy didn’t change the bias.

That is an interesting one for many in financial services. It suggests that disclosure of bias is not enough. In the fictional studies, the participants were genuinely trying to get the right outcome. But the role they were playing biased their opinions. They weren’t being unethical, but their advice was biased.

It makes me glad, personally, that I have tried very hard not to have the profit of my company as one of my objectives this year (since my advice as the Appointed Actuary can influence the size of the profit reported). In a similar situation, Bazerman also argues strongly that the way in which the audit relationship is currently structured cannot help but produced biased auditors, even if the auditors themselves firmly believe they are uninfluenced by the relationship with their clients.

Becoming more of a noticer

So how do you develop a noticing mind-set? Bazerman suggests a few changes to your way of thinking:

  • Noticing what doesn’t make sense
  • Asking why not
  • Thinking like an outsider (or finding a real outsider)
  • Thinking about what constraints the environment is creating (eg motivated blindness)

I enjoyed this book, it was chatty and the anecdotes were interesting. It’s probably not in the top tier of management books, for me, though. It was too betwixt and between – not really a leadership book, and not really a book about thinking, but a bit of both. It had the air, for me, of a book that had been rewritten a bit in an attempt to appeal to the (probably bigger) market for books on leadership.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley. So according to the section on motivated blindness, my review of this book is probably more positive than it would be if I had had to pay for it.